You are just waking up from a 28-day coma, the world is a desolate wasteland, the zombie apocalypse has come unleashed by the release of the new U2 album Songs of Innocence. At least this is the idea that you would get if you were reading Twitter, where people have complained about the new studio record that has been made available for free by Apple in millions of iTunes accounts.
The level of online snark has taken me by surprise. I have to admit that U2 used to be my favourite band during my teens and twenties; I saw them live in Dublin for the Joshua Tree Tour, a fantastic occasion where I also got to see Lou Reed and The Pogues on stage. Achtung Baby remains one of my favourite albums of all time, it was the anthem to some of the happiest years of my life, and I go back to it every time I need a quick emotional pick-me up. I did fall out of love with U2 in recent years as my musical tastes changed and became more sophisticated, but also some of their indefensible managerial decisions were highly hypocritical, such as moving their headquarters to the Netherlands for tax purposes. Musically I still liked their output, particularly the always entertaining How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Songs of Innocence is a return to some of their best form, with Volcano and Every Breaking Wave as some of my new favourites.
Whichever way you want to look at it, this is an industry-changing moment, and all the amount of mockery and baffling complaints about violated musical purity will not change that fact. Unlike what many people have complained about, the album is not immediately downloaded into your iTunes account, it is listed as available under the Purchases section of iTunes, and it can be either listened to in the cloud, or downloaded.
To those looking closely at the evolution of the copyright wars, this album release signals the beginning of the end of the old business model based almost solely on album sales. This is not a free give-away from a garage band, all the latest U2 releases have been major industry events. To give some idea of the size of this gesture, U2’s last album, No Line on the Horizon, had a début at number one in thirty countries (including the UK and the US), and by June 2009 had sold 5 million copies. Their recent best-selling (and best received) album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, sold 9 million copies worldwide. It is not a wild assumption to postulate that Songs of Innocence would have sold somewhere between those two, so this is a free release worth tens of millions of dollars on sales alone.
So what prompted U2 to do something that might very well change the music industry forever?
Firstly, Apple is said to have paid a considerable amount of money to secure the release, they literally bought the album and gave it away for free. Secondly, it is difficult for people not familiar with the copyright wars to understand what a monumental shift this is for a band like U2, as Paul McGuinness, their former manager, had been one of the most vocal detractors of intermediary services like Google, calling for nothing short of a full litigation war against search engines for encouraging and facilitating widespread piracy. Because of McGuinness, U2 had become one of the most visible defenders of the maximalist establishment. Guy Oseary, the new manager, seems to have understood that U2 had to break away from the old business model, and what better way to do it than to be part of the act that destroys the industry as we know it. Finally, the give-away is a fantastic publicity stunt, U2 were headline news again in a way that a normal album release would not have managed. The album is doing quite well, as of last Friday it had been downloaded 2 million times, and it has pushed up sales of U2’s back catalogue.
So what does Apple gain? Tim Cook needed to change something about Apple’s recent underwhelming releases. The technology merits of the Apple Watch and the iPhone 6 can be debated, but there is no doubt that the new iPhone has been welcomed by Apple fans and derided by Android users (welcome to 2012 is one of the best put-downs I’ve seen). The U2 release is the one true element of the event that stood out as an inspired and creative moment, the likes of which we had grown used to expect from Steve Jobs. Apple also gets to support dominance over Google Play, and even got a jump-start on streaming services.
But why do I keep insisting that this is an industry-changing moment? One of the biggest complaints from the music industry against piracy in the last 15 years has been that they cannot compete against free: if music is available online for free, then people will not pay for it. The reality has been more nuanced than that, but there is no doubt that the sales-heavy business model had to change to respond to the digital realities. The meteoric rise of streaming has been making album ownership increasingly irrelevant, so U2 have taken the next logical step and place the value of an album to zero. This is made possible by shifting the cost to a patron who is willing to foot the bill, and the profits will come from increased visibility of the back-catalogue, and in concert income, which is where the real money lies today. Obviously, not every band in the world will manage to get Apple to pay for a free release, but I expect similar deals to be performed in the next year by other bands. I bet that Google is now negotiating some similar release with a popular musician, and I would not be surprised if we see services like Spotify do a Netflix and give exclusive music for its subscribers.
Songs of Innocence is not a privacy violation, it is not a selling-out moment, it is not an insult from Apple. It is a shrewd statement, it is a breaking with the old way of doing things. It is a new weapon in the fight against outdated business models. It heralds the age of the cloud. It makes free music (free as in beer) mainstream. It is a moment that should be celebrated and not mocked.
And do listen to the album, you may just like a couple of songs. It’s free after all.